Sadly, my travels from here on won’t involve replicas of the Soviet Space Shuttle. At least I assume it’s a replica. Seeing as I’m in Moscow right now, one can’t entirely be sure. Still, it’s a very cool thing to find by the river in Gorky Park, or Park Kultury as it’s more properly called. (And to demonstrate my cultural bankruptcy, every time I think of the words “Gorky Park”, I don’t think of classic novels but rather the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change”. For shame…)
Anyhow, there are plenty of folks on wheels in the park – roller blades, scooters and bikes. And tomorrow I’ll take to some iron wheels of my own: a four-day expedition by train to Central Asia, specifically Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.
St. Petersburg and Moscow have eased me into the Russian travel experience, but this is where my traveller’s credentials get tested. And given my recent troubles ordering dinner, that could be a test I’ll flunk. Still, there’s nothing like a challenge to force you to step up your game. And my game may benefit from some time in the wilderness. I’ll see you on the other side of the Internet…
Tripling down on the Russian options at Pelmeny restaurant on Voznesensky Prospekt. From left to right: Kvass (very tasty), Siberian Pelemeni in butter (even tastier) and borsch (spicy and warming). I may not have the hang of the language yet, but I could survive eating like a Russian quite comfortably…
The first thing I noticed about St. Petersburg was that everything is a little further away than it appears to be. A combination of long, straight, broad avenues and buildings that mostly stick to a six-storey limit help the horizon to extend towards vanishing point. However, there’s also a matter of scale: everything here seems to be built about 10-15 percent bigger than I’m used to.
That building over there isn’t small, it’s just far away.
The result, for someone like me who likes to walk around a lot, has been some extended strolls on this, my first day here. Luckily, I also have a habit of showing up where I mean to be several minutes early. Which means, all things being equal, this has also been a day of strange hyper-punctuality.
I wasn’t pleased about missing my sleeper train to Copenhagen, but I’ll have plenty of chances to sleep on board trains in the weeks to come, and there are benefits. If I’d caught it, I would have slept through a mist-wrapped passage through the coastland of northern Germany and Denmark, dotted with human habitation but with little sign of actual humans. I don’t count my fellow rail travellers; they’re just as ghostly as I am.
Reading Margaret Atwood’s end-of-humanity fiction probably primed something in my brain to appreciate this early-morning desolation, but it’s still splendid. Wide fields of grain, interspersed with trees and electric pylons, and towering above them all the giant figures of the wind turbines, leaning into the breeze as they flail their arms in silent purpose. All of this emerging from and disappearing back into the mist, as though I’m meant to see it for a short while and memorise it. A sort of memory test.
The world has woken up as the day has gone on, with roads joining the rail as we crossed a bridge, and we’re about to hit a ferry too. That will destroy the last fragments of the illusion and start the day in earnest. Still, I’ve got what I wanted from the morning—an end to the tension of last night and a little bit of easy wonder to soothe the soul.
…I went for the Daim Bar instead.
Make your mistakes early—it gives you more time to make amends for them. It’s a good rule to live by, but it doesn’t always work when travelling, when one mistake can cause a domino run of missed connections and extra expenses. Well, I made my mistake on day one (or two, depending on how you count it) but although the dominoes teetered, they haven’t toppled—yet.
That mistake? Getting into the station at Köln/Cologne after enjoying a beer on the banks of the Rhine, only to find that where a train for Copenhagen should have been was a train for Warsaw instead. Had I looked around more thoroughly, I would have spotted that two of its carriages were bound for Copenhagen, after being decoupled in Hannover, but instead I started asking questions of station attendants who were even more confused than I was, and soon my sleeping berth was heading north without me.
Cue some anxious waiting, dawning realisation, confusing and irritating conversations with staff and eventual resolution in the form of the next train, which was at 2.10am, requiring around four hours of sitting on platform 5a of Köln Hauptbanhof. This change in plan doesn’t seem to have cost me any extra, and I’ll get into Copenhagen just in time to catch my onward connection to Stockholm, albeit without the two hours for lunch and good night’s sleep I’d originally hoped for.
So, first crisis averted. Probably. As I write this, I’m on a train somewhere north of Lübeck (passing Neustadt, if the sign I’ve just seen can be believed) moving at a leisurely pace through waterways and forests, mist-enshrouded and still in the early morning. I’ll probably be in Stockholm when I get to post it—another new city and new nation, and the final staging point before the Russian segment of this adventure.
The last moments of the last night before I get the hell out of Dodge and go on this planet’s ultimate trip to nowhere – a circumnavigatory excursion around the northern hemisphere, ending right where I began. (Yes, I could do the southern hemisphere too, but that’s being done by others, and I have to save something for the future.)
It’s been a strange week, laden down as it has been with farewells and dealing with the minutiae of travel planning. Part of that is down to my nature of being, well, prone to focusing on every little detail as if it were just as important as every other little detail. I still do that too much, especially when I get distracted. I’m getting better though.
As the past week has been strange, the past month and year have had their particular flavours. More on that later. I don’t want to delve into the philosophising too quickly. Right now, the basics remain: three hours tomorrow morning to finalise the packing and the last few tasks. Then, well, the rest of the world awaits. It should be epic.
Exactly a week from now I’m due to depart this tiny island for what will be the longest and most far-flung holiday of my life so far: a tour that will take me through Europe, across Asia and beyond, to Japan and the U.S. before finally returning after a little more than two months away. At least that’s the plan as it stands – to circle the world by sea and land, cheating slightly as I take to the air in order to cross the two big oceans in my way.
Although taking the Trans-Siberian route across Russia has long been an ambition of mine, a trip like this wasn’t on the cards at the beginning of the year. Then again, neither was being let go from my editing job of twelve-and-a-half years, nor the redundancy cheque that went with it. Rather than hold onto that windfall against the possibility of not being able to find work, I’ve taken a bit of a leap, combining the funding and the free time at my disposal to see parts of the world that have heretofore been just a little too far away for cautious old me.
There will be plenty more about the trip on this site – I’ll be posting photos and reports from wherever I can snag a wifi signal in the Siberian wilds and certainly from Japan and the U.S. Right now I’m just pulling together the last few bits and pieces of the planning. Almost there…